Mumbai remains an important character in Aravind Adiga’s fiction, but the main character in Selection Day is something else: cricket.

Scribner -S&S, 2016

Scribner -S&S, 2016

In fact, in the “Glossary of Cricket Terms” in the novel, he writes: “India: A country said to have two real religions – cinema and cricket.”

Not to worry if you don’t know a thing about cricket because the glossary appears at the back of the book.

The story is accessible without any specialized knowledge: “…cricket, two spectacularly talented slumboys, what could go wrong?”

Apparently it was inevitable (the novel about cricket, not what could go wrong with two talented slumboys).

In an interview with Economic Times conducted by Charmy Harikrishnan (September 2, 2106, here), the author exclaims: “How can you not write about cricket in India today? It’s colossal, it’s everywhere.”

But Aravind Adiga did not determine to write a predictable novel on the subject. “Like the master-servant relationship in India that I explored in The White Tiger, cricket is so big that it’s almost invisible. We don’t question or interrogate cricket enough in this country.”

He intends to take a closer look. Nothing is as simple as it seems, and he is a big proponent of reexamining, rethinking and relearning.

“This was a truth about life he had never forgotten, even after he had left the village and come by train to the big city. Only recently, Ramnath, his neighbor in the slum, observing that poor Muslims were becoming revolutionaries in Egypt and Syria and kicking out their governments and presidents, had whispered: ‘Maybe the same thing will happen in India, eh?’ Mohan Kumar had smirked. ‘Here, we can’t even see our chains.’”

Even though this is a novel about cricket, a coming-of-age novel, a story about the bonds between fathers and sons and brothers, it is – perhaps above all – a novel about living between desires (sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively).

“Radha could see there was no hope for his brother, who seemed to desire men at one moment and women at another, and lived in between his two desires, like a hunted animal – an animal which had finally run to their father for protection.”

For, in theory, sport is rooted in the simplest of principles. No matter where the game is played.

“A brick wall stands in Bowral, New South Wales. Once upon a time, a boy appeared before the wall and threw a tennis ball at it. It bounced back; so he hit it with his wooden bat. He kept on doing this and kept on doing this until he became Sir Donald Bradman, the world’s greatest batsman.”

So many larger questions circle around a story about games: failure and excellence, competition and rivalry, winning and losing, rules and expectations. And everything between. “Every man must martyr himself to something: but we have martyred ourselves to this mediocrity.”

As readers will expect – if familiar with his earlier works, which also cast a light on dark corners – there are many humourous moments in the story.

“Are you thinking of shaving? I can see in our eyes that you are thinking of shaving.”
“No, Appa.”
“A boy mustn’t shave until he’s…”
“Why must a boy not shave till he’s….?”
“What are not good for….”

Dialogue is realistic, scenes are sketched vividly, characters are bold and dramatic: the functionality of a screenplay melds with the artistry of literary phrasing and shaping.

But perhaps Selection Day is not what some readers would expect from an Indian novel.

“Oh, I do read Indian novels sometimes. But you know, Ms. Rupinder, what we Indians want in literature, at least the kind written in English, is not literature at all, but flattery. We want to see ourselves depicted as soulful, sensitive, profound, valorous, wounded, tolerant, and funny beings. All that Jhumpa Lahiri stuff. But the truth is, we are absolutely nothing of that kind. What are we, then, Ms. Rupinder? We are animals of the jungle, who will eat our neighbor’s children in five minutes, and our own in ten. Keep this in mind before you do any business in this country.”

Maybe readers looking for all “that Jhumpa Lahiri” stuff might not appreciate the “animals of the jungle” slant, but surely the storytellers’ bookshelf has room for both kinds of stories.

“Unlearning is the most important thing you have to do when writing about anything in India because so much absolutely useless information is dumped on us from birth. Whether it is regional prejudices — south Indians do this, north Indians do that — or political prejudices, or for that matter worthless notions about sports, we are taught from childhood to accept stereotypes over the truth.” (Economic Times interview, also cited above)

Whether or not it is a true story, and whether or not there is a win, Selection Day plays out as a rich and satisfying story.